Connecting the dots between the historical practices of engaging in beauty and bodywork and the contemporary world of women and beauty
5 minutes read
Is it only women’s desire to partake in beauty? It was not so difficult to dig into women’s relationship with beauty. Knowing that culture is fluid and permeates into our personal and social lives, I knew that I could find the historicity of the subject matter and connect it with contemporary times. One needs to search for India’s culture, gender and women’s writing in medieval times and type keywords like beauty, ugly, caste, class, gender, history, and BAM!
The question of why women avail the beauty services is like a chicken and an egg situation. Do women avail of these services because the branded products and the beauty parlors exist or do these services and products exist because women want to use them for bodily performance? This article tries to connect the dots using history; both Indian and global. Let’s dig in!
In Kamasutra, Vatsyayana recommends that a man practiced the daily set of bodily rituals which includes a lot of things that are considered effeminate today.
“He gets up in the morning, relieves himself, cleans his teeth, applies fragrant oils in small quantities, as well as incense, garlands, beeswax and red lac, looks at his face in the mirror, takes some mouthwash and betel, and attends to the things that need to be done. He bathes everyday, has his limbs rubbed with oil every second day, a foam bath every third day, his face shaved every fourth day, and his body hair removed every fourth or tenth day. All this is done without fail.”
Beauty has been a part of courtly aesthetics in India since the medieval times where bodily aesthetics of kings, queens, and elite people were equated with moral worth, and ethical and worldly accomplishments while ‘ugliness’ was equated with ill omens and bad habits. They used to decorate themselves with ornaments, the history of which can be seen in various museums of our country. Caste and gender were of significant importance in this process where people belonging to privileged castes were supposed to decorate themselves with jewels, red rose on lips, and rice powder on their face while underprivileged castes were denied these and were subjected to a different set of ‘not-so-elite’ norms. Not only in India, literature of a similar kind can be found in the history of China, Japan, Greece where people of lower rungs were not allowed to wear nail polish while the upper echelons of society were supposed to engage in the aesthetics of the body.
Make-up used to be the marker of similarity between the genders in India while in Europe make-up was what separated men from women.
In the temples of Khajuraho, it is almost impossible for us to differentiate between the genders based on the ornamentation and make-up alone. All are equally beautified in their aesthetic embodiment. In an age where gendered difference depends increasingly on a difference in one’s relation to make-up, it is important and thrilling to remember texts and times in which red lips, kajal (kohl) in eyes, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, united both men and women and possibly other genders. So, Victorian morality not only controlled and subjugated our sexual desires, but our bodily desires were also deemed immoral by the advent of the Britishers.
In India, though both men and women were subjected to ideals of beauty and femininity, masculine traits in women were not celebrated. Whiteness, femininity, and docility were important characteristics for women to get good matches. Mothers and fathers used to guide their daughters to practice body aesthetics in order to gain access to a good married life. Ever heard how so-and-so king was enamored with a woman’s beauty and agreed to marry her? Men were decorated with armors to indicate bravery and jewels were worn to send a message to the people that they are rich and powerful. Women on the other hand were decorated to gain men’s approval and attention so that she could be married. While the ideals of beauty were so significant in getting married, widows were shunned to engage in any form of such a practice and were supposed to shave their heads. After the husband’s death, the same beauty practices which she had been praised for once used to become the reason for her torture and even ex-communication. Such is the reality of Brahmanical order even today and has always been.
Upper caste and class men imitated Britishers in their ways of being and embodying and women were made insecure about their practices. When men used to practice bodily aesthetics, it was celebrated and cultured and when men chose to emulate the British and adapt a more confined, constructed definition of beauty and adornment, the world started to follow. when men are out of the norm; it is stereotyped and stigmatized. Sounds like Patriarchy? Well, that’s what it is! Markets never exist in a vacuum. They make use of the existing norms of cultures in different societies and exploit them to make a profit. India became a consumer economy in the 90s and the market entered into the beauty and wellness sector and it became a huge employment opportunity for people in general and women in particular. So, it is not that the markets introduced beauty practices, they were there and the market built on them. However, markets used globalization as a tool for modern-day imperialism by telling Indian women to be leaner and to engage in modern-day beauty practices.
People have been using toxic substances to beautify themselves even before industrialisation happened. People want to look beautiful and the standards around beauty vary from culture to culture and it changes with time. Today, while beauty is still significant in getting good matches for women, the other important aspect of beautifying ourselves as women is the fact that it is considered a marker of cleanliness, seriousness, and discipline in the workplace. Women’s beauty has historically been important for gaining any power or material wealth; earlier it was through marriage in the elite class and today it extends to workplaces as well. Whether men escaped the marketisation of beauty practices and got lucky or they became unlucky and are today disconnected from the desire of beautifying their own body is an important question. After all, why always look at the world from the men’s perspective? Toxic masculinity tries to police trans women when they practice make-up and ornamentation. The googly eyes don’t know their own history of engaging in ‘feminine’ practices and are living in a bubble of modern-day patriarchy and imperialism.
Throughout history, elite women used to avail services like massage and body bath from the servants in the medieval times. Today, they practice the art of getting pampered in beauty salons to relieve work and family-related stresses. Can women be impervious to beauty? In a world where women are “supposed” to be a certain way, where bodily objectification, on one hand, is problematic but on the other hand the gateway to opportunities and validation, it is quite difficult to escape the beauty norms. Women are affected by the ideal standards of beauty; each day, every day. Women are struggling to shed the ‘beauty myth’ and markets are actively pushing the agenda of beauty by increasing the ideal beauty standards. Women should not shy away from engaging in feminine practices of bodily aesthetics, however, we need to be mindful of corporatisation of our desires and should feel confident in our own different types, shapes, and colours of the body. Beautify yourself, feel good but don’t run the race of achieving idealised standards of beauty. You are anyway beautiful.
Conclusion is the complex reality. Women are supposed to look a certain way, markets promote this and women use the services to enter into the feminine world of a beauty salon, build relationships on conversations and get pampered in this fast-paced world. I reject the common saying that women’s insecurities are being exploited and they don’t know about what they are doing. It is much more complicated than that. They are engaging in choices that are important to them and all choices are constructed in the socio-cultural realities of different times. Feminists, the left and the right are all divided in their opinions on women and beauty and all are forgetting India’s history and are being biased in their approach. It is difficult to acknowledge the complex reality of things and the tendency is always to simplify; but feminism itself taught us to appreciate the complexities of things and present them as they are. Women’s relationship to beauty and body practices is at best queer and one should perceive it like that.
- Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the early twentieth century, by Tharu Susie and Lalita K.
- Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India, by Daud Ali
- The Beauty Industry: Gender, Culture, Pleasure, by Paula Black
- Infinite Variety: A History of Desire In India, by Madhavi Menon